Abu Ali Hamidi: the retired arms dealer
Youssef Bazzi - 02/04/2007
Abu Ali Hamidi (4 left)
Following the bloody encounters between supporters of the opposition and loyalists on the streets of Beirut (especially in the Tariq Al-Jadida area around Beirut University), broadcast live by Lebanese television, a sinister memory reared its head. Images and scenes that transported back to their memories of the past, reminding them of the first days of the civil war. They relived those few months in 1958, then the long years between 1975 and 1990. In people’s homes and in the media, stories and rumors have started to spread that the various factions and groups are rearming and stocking up on equipment in an atmosphere thick with resentment and hatred.
We needed to talk to some arms dealers to see if the whispers are true. So we set out to Al-Tariq Al-Jadida where the clashes took place, a Sunni neighborhood packed with Hariri loyalists that lies directly adjacent to Al-Dahiya, Hizbollah’s Shia stronghold. Any coming war could start right here, so that’s why we have turned up to meet what what the local dialect calls a qabdawi. Known as fitiwwa in Egypt, it is best translated as gangster or local strongman, a leader of multi-denominational neighborhood gang linked through ties of kinship and marriage. The qabdawi recruits and organizes young men from the neighborhood, protecting residents and resolving disputes. If the situation calls for it he supplies them with weapons and sorts out any problems the residents may have with the police or the state.
Perhaps the most famous living qabdawi is Abu Ali Hamidi (alias Uncle Zukour) from Al-Tariq Al-Jadida. It was he we were going to meet.
“When I joined the Syrian army in 1976 I gave up the business,” says Abu Ali, an arms dealer since the 1950s. As to why he stopped dealing in weapons and stayed cooped up at home, he says: “In 1975 the country fell apart: whoever was on top fell to the bottom and vice versa… Syria was chiefly responsible. Every neighborhood had its own leader, its qabdawi, and Syria screwed everything up.” So Abu Ali decided to withdraw: “I had my dignity. Syria’s policy was to back the traders, blackmail them and use them for their own ends. The qabdawis were sidelined: they weren’t allowed to get involved with the crooks.” Abu Ali doesn’t talk a lot. Every sentence is preceded by a lengthy silence. “All the [Syrian] officers used middlemen to strip people of their cash.”
Beirut was still tense, heaving with rumors of rearmament following the clashes around Beirut University, when we came to ask this wise old arms dealer for a clearer picture of how things were in the weapons trade. Little did we know, as we tramped the streets of Al-Tariq Al-Jadida that we were on our way to visit a retired arms dealer, one of Beirut’s historic qabdawis (if I can put it that way). In an old traditional two-floor building we were received by his son, a kindly, conservative man in his forties. We were asked to wait a few minutes in the living room, a piece of official protocol befitting Abu Ali’s status: an ancient tradition for receiving visitors whose rituals are observed in precise order.
It’s impossible to guess the age of this proud qabdawi: holding his strong lean body straight as a lance, his well-defined features gleaming, it is as if time itself has been unable to leave a mark. Unlike most men confronted with an interviewer he makes no special effort. The tone and rhythm of his speech remain unchanged, as if he were chatting about day-to-day affairs. He leaves sentences unformed and stories unfinished, seems uninterested in what I’m writing down. He accounts are abbreviated, staccato, indeed they are scarcely accounts at all, as if he feels obliged to keep to his word, merely keeping his word and trying not to let me down.
Prime minister with Abu Ali Hamidi
“Abu Ali,” I say, “Is it true what they say, that the arms market is booming at the moment?” This son of Al-Tariq Al-Jadida replies, “It’s a profession that operates in secret,” then falls silent. I implore him to give me a rough idea, and he says: “There’s no arms dealing now, I’m sure of it. I’m not involved any more myself, but I know that there’s no arms dealing and no dealers. If you’re a trader you can’t even get a pistol into Beirut. True, the prices have gone up, but not because the market’s booming: it’s because there aren’t any weapons for sale. There are requests by individuals… the market relies on the exchange and circulation of the weapons people already own. The price of small arms has gone up because passing it on to someone else is easier than importing it. I’m telling you: there’s no arms trade, although there are parties that receive weapons from certain countries. But these are gifts, not trade. The Palestinians have also got weapons caches.” That was all he would say, refusing to utter another word. He also wanted me to understand that as far today’s arms dealing went, the meeting was over. I realized I would have to take him back to the past, the days when he was at his peak: living with pride, secrecy and humility.
“How did you start in the trade?”
As per usual he paid scant attention to the context or to my attempts to fill in the gaps in his tale:
“In 1955 this arms dealer came and sat with me. I got into the trade through him. Cigarette dealers would carry weapons for me. I was working with the Yemin clan in Zaghrata. Qabdawis from the Franjia clan would come and buy 300 to 400 pistols and machine guns in a single deal, then the Shia lot from Baalbek would get in on it.”
I asked him to tell me about the ins and outs of his work: the details of importing and selling arms.
“In the ‘60s we’d receive documents from America that such-and-such a plane was carrying weapons from Spain… Also the cigarette smugglers were bringing millions of dollars-worth of weapons in. I was selling weapons to everyone in Lebanon. Then the Turkish Kurds came to me in 1957, and that’s when Turkey’s problems with the Kurds started. They carried on buying from me until war broke out in Lebanon.”
“But what about the borders and customs?”
“I’d go to Germany and buy a second hand car stuffed with guns and it would reach the port. At that time I had connections with the Finance Minister, the Prime Minister, the whole parliament…” After a short pause he continued: “We’d get the weapons out of the port in vehicles belonging to the parliamentary fleet… Who do you want? Army officers? Public security? Customs? MPs? Ministers? They were all with me…”
He paid no attention to my questions.
“I sold tons (before the war, of course). In 1958 Syria sent 30 soldiers and a large consignment of weaponry. My task was to distribute the weapons to the revolutionaries or the Communist Party. Sometimes I’d sell to the Phalange, and sometimes I’d buy weapons from traders close to the Phalange.”
Suddenly, with no regard for the sequence of events he breaks off and resumes again in the late ‘60s.
“Abu Marwan Radwan, who died a while back in Iraq, came and asked me to sell Palestinian weapon caches. In those days the Phalange was buying arms from Anjar, which was getting them from Syria and the Palestinians. Understand what I’m trying to say? This is a trade that takes place in secret. I don’t want to talk about it.”
Abu Ali Hamidi (2 left)
“But Abu Ali, in your opinion, why were they buying arms at that time?”
“The Christians were the biggest buyers. Keeping up appearances is a big part of arms dealing.”
“Where did you store the weapons?”
The question pleased him, and he answered with evident pride: “I never had a single weapon in my house. I’d distribute them in neighbors’ houses. The local people were happy to do anything I asked of them.”
“And what about selling them?”
“That’s a matter of trust and your word. I’d only sell to one man coming alone. If anyone else came with him I’d refuse to deal.”
From the few details I was able to prize out of him I learnt that the dealers’ never ask about payment. He takes the goods and leaves. It is all to do with trust and honesty. In addition the buyer never asks to every item. He examines a single weapon as an example and takes the rest on trust. Any messing around, any attempt to avoid payment, any meddling with the goods means you are out of the business for good. Uncle Zukour stretches out his hand and picks up a small piece of paper from the table, on which is written in an elegant hand the names of the Beiruti qabdawis he knew. It was clear that he wanted to talk about the qabdawis and nothing else. I read the piece of paper:
“Al-Basta: Akif Al-Saba’ (father of the current minister of the interior), Al-Hajj Amin Hijazi, Al-Hajj Sa’id Hamd. Burj Abi Haidar: Sa’d Al-Din Shatila (Abu Faisal). Al-Maseitba: Amin Al-Fayoumi and his brother Al-Badawi Al-Fayoumi. Aisha Bakar: Abdel Karim Daryan and his brother Khadar Daryan. Al-Tariq Al-Jadida: Zukour (Abu Ali Hamidi and his brother Abu Sa’d Al-Din.”
Ali speaks: “Di’an Al-Zalam were men: honor and honesty. I only dealt with the pure. In 1958 the first shot of revolution was fired here in Al-Tariq Al-Jadida. I fired it myself. The army fired back at me and hit a man from the Al-Kibbe clan, God rest his soul. We surrounded the soldiers in a building. I decided that we wouldn’t kill them. I took them outside the neighborhood and showed them how to get safely home to their barracks. Every evening the young men from the neighborhood…”
(He stops talking and leads me over to the balcony to show me the street corner)
“… would gather here. The prime minister would pay us a visit before going home to bed. The police patrols would go through all the streets except this one. Don’t forget that we were involved in the promotion of officers. I had an excellent rapport with Saib Salaam. Also with Rashid Al-Sulh, Abdallah Al-Yafi (former prime ministers) and Osman Al-Dina (a former MP). We were the key to the elections. “When I ask him about the job of qabdawi in his neighborhood, he responds: “Any woman who went to the police station would get her rights. We would protect the rights of all those who suffered injustice. Saib Basha (Saib Salaam) was sentenced to 51 years in prison. I brought him from Tunisia and got him through the airport and in the end the judge just gave him 91 days. Any problem with the state or the justice system, we fixed it. Our job was to take care of everyone in need; to find jobs for the unemployed. I’d pay the fees of lawyers who defended local men and women. Most important of all, every year there were fifty students who had to go to school. It was our duty to secure their path to knowledge and education.”
I told him what we used to think of the qabdawis in Sahat Al-Burj and their links with Downtown Beirut and the Second Bureau (the Lebanese security services). He responded firmly: “The qabdawis of Sahat Al-Burj weren’t qabdawis in any sense of the word. They were mixed up with thugs, prostitution, Al-Zeituna (the nightclub district) and protection rackets. The qabdawi is a gentleman, a true man.”
He brought the meeting to a close by stating: “The time of the qabdawis came to end with the war and the Syrians, when the crooks and the militias came in.”
He lit a cigarette and took refuge in silence.